By Janie Har
SAN FRANCISCO – The board of supervisors has approved an emergency ordinance to tackle the opioid epidemic in the troubled San Francisco neighborhood of Tenderloin, despite reservations by some that the statement will be used by the mayor to criminalize homeless people, drug addicts or both.
The vote shortly after midnight Friday was 8-2, after a 10-hour marathon of debate and public commentary. Public health emergency declaration authorizes the Emergency Management Department to reassign city staff and bypass contracting and licensing regulations to set up a new temporary center where people can access drug addiction treatment and expanded counseling.
Homeless and drug addicts advocates have urged supervisors to reject the emergency order as the Mayor of London Breed has also pledged to flood the neighborhood with police to end crime, something some want residents. The mayor also said some drug addicts could end up in jail if they do not accept the services, although drug possession is a crime and rarely enforced.
The board ultimately approved the statement, calling the abundance of cheap fentanyl a crisis. More people in San Francisco died from overdoses last year than from COVID-19.
“I know this is an incredibly painful, traumatic and emotional conversation,” said Matt Haney, the supervisor who represents the neighborhood, before the vote. He said he hopes the city will bring all of its “innovation, steadfast compassion and relentless determination” to deal with the crisis.
Several supervisors raised objections, although only the chairman of the board, Shamann Walton and Dean Preston voted no. They denounced the lack of details and the lack of available treatment beds, and said excessive police surveillance would victimize African Americans and the homeless.
Walton, the only African-American person on the board, said he wanted more attention to be paid to homicides in his district, which includes the traditionally black neighborhoods of Bayview and Hunters Point.
The net includes museums, the main public library, and government offices, including City Hall. But it’s also teeming with homeless and marginalized people, a high concentration of drug traffickers and people who use drugs at large.
The order itself does not call for an increase in the number of police officers, and Police Chief Bill Scott assured supervisors officers were not planning to lock people up just because they were drug addicts. Still, he said police can’t just ignore what’s going on in a neighborhood where children are afraid to go out and people inject toxic drugs.
“We’re here to help,” Scott said. “We are not here to turn a blind eye to the people who kill themselves on the streets.”
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Announcing the declaration of emergency last week, the mayor said it was time to be “less tolerant of all the bulls that have destroyed our city”. On social media this week, she said people who openly used drugs would benefit from treatment and other service options.
“But if they refuse, we will not allow them to continue using on the streets,” she said on social media this week. “Families in the neighborhood deserve better.
Breed pledged to open a supervised drug use site as well as a drug sobering-up center, and said the emergency management service would lead the response much as if coordinating efforts to combat the pandemic. The department will partly streamline emergency medical calls, disrupt drug trafficking and use, and keep the streets clean.
Overdose deaths have increased by more than 200% in San Francisco since 2018 and last year more than 700 people died from drug overdoses in the city, more than the number of people who died from COVID-19, according to the proclamation.
Nearly 600 people have died of drug overdoses this year, through November, with nearly half of the deaths occurring in the Tenderloin and nearby South of Market, the proclamation says. These areas represent 7% of the population of San Francisco.
Politically liberal cities across the United States grapple with crime in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, when their elected leaders pledged ways to reduce friction between police and vulnerable communities of color, especially those of color. African Americans like Floyd.
San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin joined the city’s public defender earlier this week in denouncing the mayor’s plan, saying jailing those struggling with addictions, mental health and homelessness would not work . They want her to use the money to add more treatment beds, shelters, skills training and other social services.
“What we are currently seeing in the net did not happen overnight and stems from years of massive divestment and displacement,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, California director at the Drug Policy Alliance.
The emergency order will last for 90 days.